Do you know where the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ comes from? It is after all, supposed to be the cornerstone of Christianity, what makes our faith different from all religions based on works and rituals. Many believers, especially Protestants, will point to Martin Luther, known as the father of the Reformation. Young Luther, like many others in medieval times, feared a vengeful God and sought to please Him doing good works, sacrificing, and punishing his body. Yet he could not find peace. But by studying the Scriptures day and night, Luther came onto something. Indeed, he wrote in the the Smalcald Articles in 1537:

Luther
Martin Luther – did he invent ‘justification by faith?

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that faith alone justifies us.[1]

 

But as we see here, ‘justification by faith’ not Luther’s own idea or doctrine – indeed he cites the New Testament. Was it that Luther rediscovered a New Testament truth, buried in Roman Catholic dogma? Here is one of the scriptures Luther cites:

—for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— (Romans 3:23-25)

Paul
Or was it the Apostle Paul?

This is the Apostle Paul writing, and perhaps most people would attribute ‘justification by faith’ to him. This is understandable, given that he writes this in several letters:

 

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith. (Romans 1:17)

But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)

Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him. (Hebrews 10:38)

Historically – and often based on Paul’s writings – Christianity has been defined by its opposition to Judaism. Faith vs. works. Grace vs. law. We have an understanding that Judaism is a religion based on law and works, and that Jesus (or Paul, or indeed Luther) came to bring the good news of salvation by faith alone. Yet, this is one of the biggest misconceptions of our civilisation. And the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ forms part of this.

Habakkuk-back
No – the Old Testament prophet Habbakkuk!

Open your Bible to the Old Testament prophet Habbakuk, who lived around the 7th century BC. If you turn to the second chapter, you find this verse:

 

Behold the proud, His soul is not upright in him; But the just shall live by his faith.

Habakkuk 2:4

We understand now that Paul was not inventing a new doctrine, but citing Habakkuk from the Tanakh, or Old Testament. But as usual he did not – as for example Peter – properly reference his quotes.

Yet this is an issue beyond poor referencing. Abraham, or Abram as he was first called, was a wealthy man from a pagan family. God called him while his family had their own family gods and spirituality. After his encounter with the God of Enoch, of Noah, Abraham began to follow God. He was told to leave his own family, and his country and his culture. By faith Abraham did not argue or question God but left everything behind to journey to an unknown future in an unknown land, following an unseen God, unknown to him. As he obeyed, God promised him that he would bless him, and Abraham became the father of faith and obedience (Hebrews 11:8). As Paul wrote in Romans 4:3, Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

church
The Catholic Church left the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Justification by faith is the cornerstone of Judaism, not Christianity. The Church was built on Judaism, by and through the Jews – Jesus told the Jews to go from Jerusalem to the ends of the world to preach the gospel.[2] When the gentiles broke away from the Jewish roots of the Church, from Jerusalem to Rome, the understanding that we are justified by faith was gradually lost. In the established Catholic Church, the Greek traditions gained more influence than the Scriptures and the Jewish roots. The Word of God became complicated and mystical, written in Latin, that ordinary people might not understand it, and the gentiles who wanted to know God had to go through the Catholic establishment.

Luther’s and others’ rediscovery of the doctrine of justification was a good thing. It brought freedom and change on many fronts in theology, churches and European civilisation. But – as Luther did in his time, and as many Christian teachers and preachers still do today – to ignore the fact that this doctrine comes from Judaism in the first place, and that Christianity comes from Judaism, is wrong. And this is the time to repent from this error, turn away from Christian anti-Judaic prejudice, and turn back to the roots of our faith.

 

 

[1] Quote by Luther from “Justification by Faith” at Wikipedia, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theology_of_Martin_Luther, accessed 2014-12-29.

[2] See for example the discussions on early church membership in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and also Acts 21:20-26, which show the Jewish basis of the early Church, and Acts 24:14-17.

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